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Factory farming is an atrocity our generation must solve

Most of the earth’s sentient being lives and die on a production line. It’s time to think of a better way.

In 2015, the now household name Yuval Noah Harari, historian, philosopher, and author of Sapiens, called industrial farming ‘one of the worst crimes in history’. Five years on, and though the number of people eating meat globally has declined in the west, the number of beings processed through industrial grade farms and slaughterhouses remains stable.

By far the majority of large animals alive on planet earth today have been bred for human consumption. Documentaries like Attenborough’s Planet Earth stimulate outrage on behalf of the world’s exotic animals and their suffering at the hands of human misconduct, but these creatures represent just a fraction of the world’s living fauna, and just a fraction of its suffering. The world contains 40,000 lions but, by way of contrast, there are around 1 billion domesticated pigs; there are 500,000 elephants but 1.5 billion domesticated cows; 50 million penguins and 20 billion chickens.

Of course, these inflated numbers are entirely man-made. As Harari explains in his article, when the chicken was first discovered by humans it was a rare flightless bird roaming the plains of South Asia. Today, it’s the most populous bird on the planet by far thanks to industrial grade breeding. In 2009 there were 1.6 billion total wild birds in Europe. That same year, the European agriculture industry hatched over 1.9 billion chickens. We are singularly responsible for the overwhelming overrepresentation of these animals in our ecosystem, and for bringing the large majority life. It’s time we recognised our moral obligation to them.

The Case Against Factory Farming - Quillette

As has been well documented by environmentalists, the conditions in which animals are kept in industrial facilities beggars belief. Videos and documentaries that expose the industry for its atrocious malpractice are a dime a dozen, so if you’re in need of convincing then check out Joaquin Phoenix’s harrowing exposé Earthlings, the 2002 short Meet your Meat, or 2014’s Lucient that unearths the horrors of the Australian pig farming industry, all available on YouTube in full.

These easily accessible films (practically, not emotionally) showcase cruelty on an unimaginable scale, including the removal of tails and beaks without anaesthetic for more compact animal storage, the killing of infant animals in front of their mothers to stimulate milk production, and the bleeding of large animals over the course of days in supposedly ‘halal’ facilities.

Regardless of where your moral compass lies on whether it is morally wrong to exploit living creatures at all (a position known as ‘ontological veganism’), it’s empirically provable that the animals human beings regularly consume – pigs, cows, sheep, chickens – have sentience, with sentience being defined as the capacity to feel, perceive, or experience subjectivity. A study of domesticated pigs in 2015 found that they display cognition and emotion which includes, empathy, a sense of self as determined by the mirror test (the ability to distinguish themselves from other pigs), the ability to not only anticipate an event but to prepare or plan for it behaviourally, and numeric understanding.

Blue Planet II

If the impetus to eat them is not considered morally wrong (many naturalists would argue that our instinct towards killing and eating animals was bred into us by natural selection and is thus no crime) then surely causing them unnecessary amounts of pain is wrong, given that we’re aware of their capacity to feel it.

So, if the answer isn’t necessarily to stop the farming of sentient creatures altogether (aside from anything else, this is a project so massive that dejection necessarily presupposes even its consideration), then we must look to making the agriculture industry kinder. After all, we all seemed quite keen on alleviating human-caused torment when we saw albatross chicks choking on plastic during Blue Planet.

There are ways to make the process of farming livestock more ethical. Increasingly, small scale and independent farms, particularly in Europe, are moving towards a more humane treatment of their animals.

David and Wilma Finlay spoke to the The Independent about their organic farm in Scotland, The Ethical Dairy, where rather than separating calves from their mothers immediately after birth they wean them over the course of five months. And for sustainable meat options, The Ethical Butcher is an online service available in the UK that connects consumers with ‘certified ethical’ monthly meat packages from farmers that, according to their website, ‘farm in ways that increase biodiversity and regenerates the land.’

There are also several charities and organisations that monitor and report on the ethical standards of farming institutions, including Humane Farm Animal Care, Animal Outlook, and Ethical Farms. Generally, the standards these organisations try to implement allow animals access to wholesome and nutritious foods, appropriate environmental design, and considerate handling, transport, and slaughter.

At its most basic level, we all know to look out for the ‘free range’ stamp on our eggs, or the ‘responsibly sourced’ seal on our supermarket bought fish. Indeed, if our voting history is anything to go by people do care about farmed animal welfare. In the US in 2018 California passed a ballot measure for cage-free eggs with 61% of the vote. A similar initiative in Massachusetts succeeded with 78% of the votes.

The problem is, whilst consumers might think they’re helping alleviate the problem of cruelty in factory farming by opting for these ‘more’ sustainable options, in reality these labels can be misleading. ‘Free-range’ doesn’t necessarily mean non-captive, with hens in these facilities usually getting about as much space per animal as their caged counterparts.

Facilities attempting to make a difference may be louder in the press but, in reality, they are few and far between. According to the The Guardian, 75% of US adults think that they eat humane meat despite over 99% of US farmed animals coming from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, commonly known as ‘factory farms’ (90% worldwide).

Factory farming - 80,000 Hours

The root of the problem is the magnitude of humanity’s meat operation. Already the sustaining of livestock is an incredible strain on the planet’s resources, with almost 50% of the grains produced in the world currently fed to livestock; and this is with factory farms keeping animals alive only as long as necessary.

Whilst ethical farming sounds like a viable solution, if all the domesticated farm animals alive currently were given space to roam and a few years to live, not only would we be completely and immediately overrun, but greenhouse emissions would skyrocket. Grass-fed cow farming leads to two to four times more production of methane than grain-fed beef. We quite literally have created too many of these animals to treat them humanely.

Even if humanity did manage to reduce the amount of meat they eat (the average person in the UK eats 84.2kg of meat per year) by a significant proportion, we would need extensive regulations and enforcement to maintain high animal welfare standards throughout the industry. This would be a massive burden on the taxpayer, with increased independent inspectors, medical supplies and personnel, and a revision of artificial insemination needed. That level of welfare doesn’t exist even at the very ‘best’ farms today.

So, whilst there are ways to make the process of farming livestock more ethical, there is no way of making it ethical overall. Even if humane animal farming is possible in theory, it cannot feasibly feed the 10 billion people expected to inhabit the planet by 2050 if the demand for meat remains the same. By any common philosophical understanding of morality, this is one of the most calamitous ethical dilemmas our generation faces.

Home - Happy Cow

If humane farming is a myth, quite literally the only solution to this problem is for people to reduce the overall demand for meat whilst investing in and developing meat alternatives.

We’ve written extensively on the widespread success of Silicon Valley initiatives Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods in creating artificial meat. Since their debut in 2016, Beyond Burger patties have made their way into tens of thousands of supermarkets worldwide. The company reported that at the end of 2019’s first quarter, they’d sold more than 25 million Beyond Burgers. I’ve had a few myself: they’re delicious.

Producing Beyond Burgers produces 99% less water, 93% less land, and creates 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than beef burgers. Moreover, no sentient beings are harmed in the production line. By ‘investing’ in these products, I don’t necessarily mean buying shares. I mean, at a minimum, quite simply ordering their meat alternatives at restaurants when given the option.

As American philosopher Spencer Johnson said, ‘integrity is telling myself the truth’. Gen Z seem very willing to hold other generations morally responsible for their actions in the face of things like racism and LGBT+ discrimination, but when it comes to facing up to the damage we’re doing by eating meat we are perceptibly quieter. It’s time to confront the reality of the harm we’re causing. When we refuse to inconvenience ourselves in any slight way in order to alleviate the unimaginable suffering of billions upon billions of thinking, feeling beings, we become hypocrites. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away.

We have the data to make this a no brainer – by supporting factory farming we hurt animals and we hurt ourselves. In order to live up to our moral imperative as human beings, we must angle ourselves towards meat alternatives and predominantly vegetarian diets. I hope that, along with all the other good our generation constantly strives to do, the ending of factory farming will be a part of our legacy.


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